Three weeks with Neck Pain
Life lessons of living with intense pain and weakness
The Unbearable Heaviness of the head stand
On Friday evening, I drove back my daughter from her gymnastics class and on Saturday we were playfully chatting about how deftly she learned to do hand stands. I told her how when we were her age, in India, we were taught to do Sirshasana, the Indian head stand asana posture. Oblivious that thirty years have gone by, I got out of my chair and showed her the posture.
I should normally not have remembered this, except for a mild pain (very mild nagging pain) on my right shoulder right after this. The next Monday my wife and I went for lunch at a local Chinese place; we ordered crispy chicken and as I took a bite on the morsel of food, something inside my mouth snapped and a metallic partially filled fragment of tooth came out. I lost my partially filled right upper premolar tooth. It was an unnerving feeling; there was no pain in my tooth as this was already a dead tooth that had undergone a root canal filling many years ago, but the edges were super sharp like a razor, and I felt uncomfortable about it and called my dentist’s office. The receptionist booked me for an appointment on Thursday — three days later — with the dentist. I made up my mind that I was going to have it extracted.
Meanwhile, the light pain on the shoulder persisted and increased. By now, I felt uncomfortable to sleep on my back. I went to see my dentist that Thursday at the appointed hour.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 says,
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
My dentist certainly took his Bible lessons to heart, for he found my dead premolar tooth fragment — the realm of dead — in my oral cavity and applied all of his hundred pound frame worth of force to it to dislodge the resistant tooth from its safe space in the gum socket. He was successful; of course; but on hindsight, perhaps not before snapping something on my neck. The neck pain that day became intense, and the pain and emptiness in the tooth socket did not help either. Didn’t The Buddha state that Emptiness is the root of our suffering? Oh well.
By Saturday, the pain was unbearable, and I tossed and turned in the bed all night long. Back in our neck of the woods, you won’t find a doctor easily, so I had to wait till Monday to find a doctor. The doctor after her careful examination of my neck came to the conclusion that I had a pulled muscle on my back possibly due to a nerve compression, and prescribed analgesics (on the top of analgesics that I already had for post-tooth extraction), and amitryptiline for she thought it works well for neuropathic pain. She also advised that I see a physiotherapist but I could not get a booking with the physio till Wednesday that week.
The result was deadly for the next two days. The pain did not relieve and it became unbearable and amitryptiline made me restless. By then, the thumb was numb and I had tingling and numbness on my forearm and the thumb, the pain was intense and a strange feeling spread along the outer aspect of my right upper limb. The right arm was so severely weak that I could not even hold a cup of tea.
The physiotherapist pressed on my spine, and kneaded the muscles as they do, and tried to pull my neck in an effort to apply traction. He was an athletic well-built strong man. Luckily, whatever he did worked, and for the first time that night, I could sleep (of course with heavy dose of analgesics but minus amitryptiline or codeine). I thanked him and he asked me for another visit on Wednesday. Another round of painful kneading of muscles and whatever he worked on the spine. I started feeling better. He advised I apply a hot water bottle on my back as he thought heat works great on your back.
By Wednesday, I felt slightly better and thought I could manage to boil water and apply a hot water bottle on my back. It was late in the night, wife and daughter were asleep, ’twas a quiet night. Seconds after the whistle of the boiling water in the kettle stopped, a piercing shrill rent the silence of the quiet night in a rural town in New Zealand. That second noise came from me of course, as my weak right hand was now slipped with the weight of the partly filled hot water bottle and the boiling water from the kettle splashed over my back of the hand.
Which is why you get to see this unseemingly picture of a debrided hand with raw flesh exposed.
By then, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Nearly everything. I had injured my neck, my arms and the limb got numb, and I managed to scald my right hand real bad.
Yet I managed to live.
I managed to pull myself together.
Most importantly, through this illness (at the time of writing this, the hand is still numb and I cannot write for long), there were some amazing realisations of life and relations, and life lessons, and pearls of wisdom I collected I wanted to share with you. I hope, that you never undergo what I underwent, but you can use some of these lessons in your own lives.
One, develop a sense of humour sees you through the worst pains in life. — As I look back, these three weeks were possibly the worst I could ever expect. But the one thing that kept me going was my ability to laugh at myself, and not take myself too seriously, even amidst the worst pain. That sense of humour and not taking me too seriously help me transcend my pain, but more importantly, helped me heal and helped me to look at life with a lot of fun. I was thinking of Ecclesiasts proverb thinking of the dentist’s savage pull at my teeth that precipated worsening of my neck pain. I don’t take life too seriously? Perhaps, but that has helped me going.
I suppose this is a metaphor of life. In the ups and downs, it helps to keep a straight face and not take yourself too seriously. Smile, find reasons to smile at yourself and the world. Life becomes a lot more tolerable and fun. Be happy, above all.
Two, prize your family and your closed ones (family, friends, spiritual mates). — Be thankful to your near ones — wife, daughter, mum, dad, sister, brother, the ones who are close to you and who stand by you in your tough times. Be grateful for their presence. They are precious. In times of great pain, you will be amazed how great a scaffold that can be. I cannot even begin to describe how grateful and thankful I was when my ten year-old daughter touched my aching neck one day and ordered me in a stern voice never again to touch hot water. Or the generosity of a group of friends I have on email (I have not met any of them face to face, and with only one of them on Skype) who kept me amused with great anecdotes and email posts. Amazing.
Three, remember that “Your Desk Will Not Attend Your Funeral”. — If you haven’t read it, read Todd Brison’s classic Medium post now. I wrote to a colleague that I had neck injury and I found it very difficult and painful to write even five lines at a stretch. Fifteen minutes later, she sent me an email, “I hope you are feeling better now. Can you please … (a request about writing a paper)”; cest la vie. Work is important but we should draw a boundary between our wellness and work. Sad that it took me a really serious injury to figure it out, :-P. Be wiser.
Four, be curious about your pain and learn to meditate on it. — This is a metaphor of life. Seriously. There were nights when I tossed and turned in the bed as the gnawing pain in my neck kept me awake, and a sharp searing pain in the burnt hand would not let me sleep nor keep me awake, I hated it. But somewhere along the journey I learned to delve into the heart of that pain, tried to feel the intensity of the pain, name the pain, be with it and was curious about the nature of the pain. In what is true happiness, Allan Wallace quoted Shantideva, the Buddhist saint who said,
Those deciding to escape from suffering hasten right toward suffering. With the very desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own happiness as if it were the enemy
It seemed impossible to do at first. But the longer the pain persisted, the more it offered me the opportunity to be curious about it. What did it do to me? Could I name that thing? The pain did not go away, but I can tell you the suffering did. Learning to delve deeply into the heart of pain without attaching a value to it but with intense curiosity helped me. It did, even in the time of the starkest desperation.
In the end …
There you have. My four lessons of life in the most desperate situation of intense pain and over a time when everything that could go wrong went wrong. I am still not fully recovered but at least I survived. Hope there are lessons in life I should write down before I forget.